Saudi Arabia defends execution of 47, including senior Shia cleric
Iran warns executing prominent Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr will ‘cost Saudi Arabia dearly’
A picture released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on Saturday shows an undated picture of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Photograph: Reuters
Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric has defended the execution of 47 people put to death after being convicted of terrorism offence, including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh said the executions were a “mercy to the prisoners” because it would save them from committing more evil acts and prevent chaos.
Most of those executed were convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, but four, including Sheikh Nimr, were Shia Muslims accused of shooting policemen during anti-government protests in recent years.
Sheikh Nimr was a prominent supporter of mass anti-government protests that erupted in the country’s eastern province in 2011, where a Shia majority has long complained of marginalisation.
The simultaneous execution of 47 people was the biggest mass execution for such offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979.
The 43 Sunni jihadists executed included several prominent al Qaeda figures, including those convicted of responsibility for attacks on Western compounds, government buildings and diplomatic missions that killed hundreds from 2003-06.
However, the execution of four Shia, including Sheikh Nimr, who were convicted of shooting and petrol bomb attacks that killed several policemen during anti-government protests in Qatif district from 2011-13, provoked an immediate response abroad.
Shia-lead Iran said Saudi Arabia would pay a “high price” for the execution. A top Iranian cleric warned the kingdom’s Al Saud ruling family would be “wiped from the pages of history”, Yemen’s Houthi group described Sheikh Nimr as a “holy warrior” and Lebanese militia Hezbollah said Riyadh had made “a grave mistake”.
Islamic scholars around the world hold vastly different views on the application of the death penalty in Sharia law, with Saudi judges adhering to one of the strictest interpretations.
A top Iranian cleric warned the kingdom’s Al Saud ruling family would be “wiped from the pages of history”, Yemen’s Houthi group described Sheikh Nimr as a “holy warrior” and Lebanese militia Hezbollah said Riyadh had made “a grave mistake”.
Saudi police increased security in Qatif district of Eastern Province, residents said, a Shia majority area and site of the protests from 2011-13 in which several police were shot dead as well as over 20 local demonstrators.
Bahrain police fired tear gas at several dozen people protesting against the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a witness said.
In a statement issued on state television and other official media, the Interior Ministry named the dead men and listed crimes that included both involvement in attacks and embracing jihadist ideology.
Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to the Interior Ministry, commented: “There is a huge popular pressure on the government to punish those people. It included all the leaders of al Qaeda, all the ones responsible for shedding blood. It sends a message.”
Analysts have speculated that the execution of the four Shia was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia’s majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects.
However, human rights groups have consistently attacked the kingdom’s judicial process as unfair, pointing to accusations that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendants in court have been denied access to lawyers.
Riyadh denies practising torture, rejects criticism of its legal process and says its judiciary is independent.
The executions are Saudi Arabia’s first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.